The referendum in Scotland

by Lorenzo Piccoli


It was 2011 when I read a letter by Alex Salmond published on the Economist. The letter was about his vision for Scotland and his promise to deliver a referendum on the independence of the country by 2014. I was struck, and deeply fascinated by the arguments in favor and against independence. Since then I started studying citizenship in Scotland, a place I would have visited four times in the following three years.

Now here I am again, just one day to go before the long-awaited referendum. I arrived in Edinburgh on September 2nd to follow the campaign and the post-electoral debate. With less than 24 hours to the vote, here are some of my preliminary reflections. (Note: I have already published one article on the matter. You can find it in Italian on Unimondo following the link here).

1. Who will win. When the campaign started, the objective of the Better Together was to make sure that the victory was as big as possible and the only thing to do was to “bayonet the wounded”. For months to the referendum the polls showed a solid lead of the No with over 20 points of advantage over Yes Scotland. Unionist parties were confident their side would win comfortably. Yet, on Sunday 7 September, only five days after my arrival, the YouGov poll came out showing that the Yes side had taken the lead. It was a major shock for the Better Together and the three British parties defending the Union.

scotland referendum polls

How did the Yes campaign achieve so much in so little time? I think here there are two crucial lessons to be learn. First and foremost, Yes Scotland is a movement, not a campaign: it is broad and imaginative and richly textured, it involves artists, intellectuals, students, veterans, not just politicians. Second, Yes Scotland is about uplifting progressive ideas: it proclaims a fairer, more equal, younger multicultural society as opposed to the individualistic neoliberal policies pursued by Westminster. Put these two features together and you have passion.

Passion, in politics, is a powerful tool. The Yes volunteers are, in fact, enthusiastic volunteers, as opposed to the Better Together volunteers who are, err, paid activists. This tells a lot about the two sides of the campaign, a campaign the Yes Scotland has already won on virtually every front: it has given out more leaflets, put up more posters, knocked on more doors, dominated on twitter. It takes very little to understand how much of a difference this makes. Take my personal experience. In the neighborhood where I live there is one Better Together office and one Yes Scotland. I visited both. The latter was crowded and I was offered plenty of leaflets with facts, pictures, and texts explaining why Scotland should be independent. One could even buy a mug, a poster, a t-shirt, or a comic book. (I did buy the mug and the poster). The Better Together office, by contrast, was deserted and the only thing I could get was a ‘No, thanks’ poster. The girl who was working there asked me if I wanted to volunteer too; I said ‘no, thanks’.

Will the Yes eventually win over the voters on referendum day? I honestly do not know. The two sides are neck to neck and the outcome is too close to call. But there is little doubt that one of the two sides has won already. Think back to how the No entered in the campaign and now consider that when Gordon Brown – backed by the three Westminster party leaders – last week promised Scotland “nothing less than a modern form of home rule” if the vote is no, it signalled that the constitutional make-up of these islands is about to change irrevocably. This will be a historical referendum, regardless of the final outcome, and much of the credit goes to the Yes side.

2. It has been a big debate. There is one more reason why this is a historical referendum: the campaign has been hugely engaging, energizing people everywhere in the country, reaching disaffected voters, and ultimately making people think about the kind of community they want to live in. I was walking around Edinburgh the last week and I have witnessed an extraordinary flowering of local-level discussion in the streets, the university, community halls. These were not political rallies: they were meetings well beyond the slogans of the official party politics. They were challenging discussions about the currency, Europe, the kind of democracy and institutions that would best serve the people who live in Scotland. There were extremely few incidents and the two sides remained respectful of each other: I can’t tell of any personal attack, insult, or threat. As a result, around 97% of the population have registered to vote and turnout will almost certainly be far higher than the 63.8% who voted in Scotland at the 2010 general election. The process leading to the referendum has been an admirable democratic exercise.

3. It has not been about economy (primarily) or the identity (at all). My friends who do political economy, study finance, or work in business are all convinced that this referendum boils down to economic assets and the rest is cheap talk. I think they are profoundly mistaken. As it should be clear from the explanation I have provided thus far, the campaign has been mainly about the kind of institutions that can do a better service to Scottish democracy. It has not been about the economy only. Of course, the pound, the tax revenues, the oil: all of these are important issues at stake. But they are not the only ones.

A similar point needs to be made with respect to identity. Nationalism, history, Scottishness and blood: none of these features have been present in the Yes campaign. This is a remarkable feature and the Yes side deserves credit for that. Quite paradoxically, the only time I have been thinking about ethnic nationalism was when I listened to David Cameron appealing to Britishness as a “magical identity”. What is important to emphasise is that there has not been a nationalist call to arms from the Yes campaign.

In the end, the reason why the Yes is winning over many voters has been explained very clearly by of the best professors I have had in the last few years: because it appeared more concerned with the democratic deficit in current UK political structures, the gradual erosion of the welfare state, and the need to create a fairer, more just society. If it’s a Yes on Thursday, voters must have felt that these social and political goals would be more easily achievable in an independent Scottish state than in current UK structures. Yes Scotland’s campaign has won over Scots’ desire for a country that is stronger and fairer. Short of winning independence, that will be the Yes campaign’s enduring achievement.

4. A look to the future. So much for the good news. I believe most of the problems lie ahead.

The No campaign  has lost a precious opportunity to strengthen the union. It could have emphasized the collective achievements of the Union (the industrial revolution, the victory in World War II, the welfare system, Andy Murray…) to project a different future together.  It has not done any of that, conducting a campaign based on scaremongering and marginal concessions. Should the No win, the main parties have already committed to a great devolution for Scotland. But there are huge problems coming with it. First, the legislative timetable set out is barely credible, as it intends to carry out in four months what normally takes several years of consultation. Second, the plan provides no scope to consult the wider public and lack of public engagement will make it difficult to secure popular legitimacy for the new devolution proposals. For these reasons, it is unlikely that a No vote will bring about the kind of change that the Union needs, as it has been dramatically showed by the direction and the arguments of this campaign.

On the other hand, the Yes campaign has offered a vision for an independent Scotland. And what a vision! Universal childcare, free prescriptions, no fees at university, free social care, higher pensions, an end to nuclear weapons, a challenge to the bedroom tax and a securely non-privatised welfare state. At the same time, it has advocated “a light touch” on business, cutting public expenditure, opposing 50% as the top rate of tax, promoting deregulation, and competing with the Treasury to slash corporation tax. It is very, very difficult to see how these things can come together without generating profound tensions and unsatisfactory compromises.

In short, if the No campaign has been dire, punitive, and disengaged, the Yes campaign has promised much more than what it can realistically achieve. Of course, it remains tempting to hear the siren call of a young, independent state making its way in the world; but as it has been recently reminded to me, Antonio Gramsci, the Italian philosopher and politician, famously advocated pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will: the Yes campaign, understandably, has emphasised the latter but effectively ignored the former.

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